Every afternoon for the past three weeks, Jason Isbell has been showing up to the Sound Emporium around 1 p.m. The routine is usually the same: He’ll park in the Nashville building’s back lot, walk past the bowls of complimentary Cheez-Its and biscuits and greet his bandmates inside Studio A. Then, once everyone’s ready to work, he’ll sit down on the couch and debut a new song. Producer Dave Cobb, back in the saddle after overseeing 2013’s Southeastern, will suggest a chord change or two, the others will offer some arrangement ideas and 30 minutes later, the entire band will be inside the tracking room, nailing down a live take of a tune just heard for the first time.
“I’m a happier person than I was three years back,” says Isbell, who recorded Southeastern months after kicking a decade-long addiction to alcohol. “I was in a very selfish place back then, which is where you have to be to make any kind of big, personal change. It was nice that Southeastern took off the way it did because it made a lot of things in my life a lot easier, but this one’s not nearly as depressing. It’s bit more celebratory. There’s not as heavy a body count.”
There are definitely more bodies in the room, though. When Isbell recorded Southeastern, he did so with a skeleton crew, playing all the guitar parts himself and tracking a handful of songs — including the show-stealing opener, “Cover Me Up” — while sitting alone in Cobb’s kitchen. This time around, he’s relying on the five-piece 400 Unit to add some country-rock stomp. Newer songs like “Children of Children,” one with a spacey jangle that reminds the producer of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Déjà Vu, still hold plenty of intimate moments, but Isbell’s full album — tentatively called Something More Than Free — is the product of a full unit, not just a frontman.
“It’s less of a tell-all, rip-your-heart-out-and-put-it-on-the-table record,” says 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden. “There’s a lot of sonic real estate being taken up, but we’ve been playing together so much, so we can listen to each other and do what’s best for the songs. The music Jason has been pulling out of the air is amazing, and at this point, that’s kind of what we expect. We don’t expect anything less than awesome.”
On this day, roughly halfway through the album’s three-week creation, Cobb is looking to make a few adjustments to songs that have already been tracked. First up is “24 Frames,” a song Isbell compares to “the way indie rock sounded when I was 15.”
“You ever listen to old Elton John?” Cobb asks bassist Jimbo Hart, pulling up Tumbleweed Connection on his iPhone. “Check out this shit. This is what I want. Listen to how the bass moves the piano.”
They listen to the first minute of “My Father’s Gun,” with Hart nodding his head in agreement. “You want the bass to lift the guitar chords,” he says. “Like, push them into the next bar.” Hart goes into the tracking room, picks up his bass and nails the part in a single take. They move on to the next song.
Back in the Studio A lounge, Isbell sips his coffee and ignores the nearby display of snack food. He’s slimmed down since his drinking days, and the bags that used to rest beneath his eyes — leftover souvenirs from a wetter, wilder past — are fading away. Sobriety has treated him well, and after chronicling that particular journey with Southeastern, he’s enjoying the chance to stretch his legs a bit.
“The great thing about this particular job,” he says, “is you don’t have to tell anybody how much of a song is true and how much isn’t. Nobody’s fact-checking your songs, so you can blur the lines between autobiography and narrative fiction. I can write that I was on a helicopter that went down, and I don’t wind up getting the Brian Williams fallout from not actually being onboard. Because it’s just a song! It rhymes!”
Still, the record contains plenty of truth. Isbell’s wife and bandmate Amanda Shires is several months pregnant, and although he insists that none of the songs deal with the impending newborn, it’s easy to interpret tracks like “Children of Children” — whose chorus describes a child riding on the hip of its young mother, both of them dwarfed by the corn that grows nearby — as the work of a man preparing for fatherhood. Another song, “To a Band I Loved,” pays tribute to one of his biggest influences, Centro-Matic. “You don’t really hear good eulogies for your favorite bands,” he explains. “Back in the day, I used to ride out with them and play guitar in their band, when the Truckers weren’t touring. I felt some real grief when they split up.”
Around 10 p.m., everyone packs up and heads home for the night. There was a time when Isbell might have remained in the studio, raging and recording until the early hours of the morning, but those days are over. He doesn’t miss them.
“We don’t have any kind of chemical assistance to keep us up that late,” he says, “so we’re not gonna get a whole lot accomplished after 10 or 11. You want to get stuff done when people are fresh and inspired. You want to stay sharp so you can trust your instincts. The floodgates are fortunately open for us right now, so we’re respecting that — and making the most of it.”